Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Meet the New Drug Czar, Same As The Old Drug Czar

Soon after taking office, our current president appointed a new director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, otherwise known as the Drug Czar. Nothing really surprising about the appointment, other than for the first time it is no longer a cabinet-level position (no explanation for that). But at the time, the marijuana news and blog sites were buzzing with facts and speculations about the new appointee, former Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske. Based on his history, some were actually hopeful that this new guy would be more sympathetic to the anti-prohibition cause than his predecessors. Sadly, these hopes were soon dashed as Mr. Kerlikowske has since stated publicly on more than one occasion that decriminalization and legalization are not in his vocabulary (nor in the president’s), and that marijuana is a dangerous drug with no medical uses. Period. End of “discussion.”

Apparently all these hopeful people were not aware of the Drug Czar’s job description, which which was modified by Congress in 1998 to read, in part:

The Director ... shall ensure that no Federal funds appropriated to the Office of National Drug Control Policy shall be expended for any study or contract relating to the legalization (for a medical use or any other use) of a substance listed in schedule I of section 202 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 812) and take such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize the use of a substance (in any form) that ... is listed in schedule I of section 202 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 812); and has not been approved for use for medical purposes by the Food and Drug Administration.

What this means is that the Drug Czar is required by law to oppose any efforts toward ending prohibition, and to even oppose medical or other research of schedule I substances (e.g., marijuana). So, when he says that certain words are not in his vocabulary, he means that literally. By law, he cannot speak in favor of any change in policy. You see, it doesn’t matter who the Drug Czar is, or what his personal opinions might be. His job is to do everything he can to maintain the status quo. In other words, to keep schedule I substances in schedule I. It wouldn’t have mattered if Woody Harrelson had been appointed Drug Czar, the message would have been the same. Any public statement contrary to the official position of the federal government would, at the very least, get him fired. My only question is, what’s the president’s excuse?

I don’t know about you, but this institutionalized lying seems just a tad blatant to me. Sure, all politicians lie. Much like death and taxes, it’s inevitable. But they typically don’t like to admit it, unless they get caught and have to. What’s unusual in this particular case is that lying is part of the job description. Regardless of any scientific evidence or public opinion, the Drug Czar must oppose any change in the current state of prohibition. Even if marijuana were widely accepted as having great medical value, he must say it doesn’t. Even if every citizen in the country were to be in favor of ending prohibition, he must say that it will never happen. So don’t blame Mr. Kerlikowske too much. He’s just being a good civil servant and fulfilling his job responsibilities as best he can.

The people you should be blaming are those that created the office of Drug Czar in the first place. And those that made the person holding that position into nothing more than a PR shill for the federal government. Once you understand the situation, you really can’t get too upset over what the Drug Czar says. Granted, some Czars have been more enthusiastic about it than others. OK, they’ve all be pretty enthusiastic crusaders for prohibition. But what can you expect? Given the job description, anyone with any contrary opinion (or self respect) probably wouldn’t even accept the appointment. Or be nominated in the first place.

To summarize, the Drug Czar has nothing to do with drug policy in this country, other than doing his best to make sure that it doesn’t change. No need to even listen to what he says, as it’s the same story we’ve been hearing for over 70 years now. So any time the Drug Czar makes a public statement, just move along, nothing to see here.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

On The Other Hand...

I wrote a rather optimistic piece a short time ago (Thank You, Mary Beth Buchanan) about how the tide was changing and things were starting to happen on the re-legalization front. If you’ve been reading my stuff for a while, you probably know that I am nothing if not pessimistic, at least when it comes to prohibition. So I thought I’d mention some recent developments that are less than positive. Just so you don’t think I’m starting to view things through rose-colored (or is that weed-colored?) glasses. Or going soft (that’s what she said).

One major blow to the movement came just a couple of weeks ago when the governor of New Hampshire vetoed the most restrictive medical marijuana bill ever drafted. And by restrictive I mean, for example, it applied to only to terminal patients and did not allow patients to grow their own medicine. The bill ended up being so limited because of objections by the governor to earlier drafts. In spite of changes that addressed all of the governor’s concerns, he still vetoed the bill. And it’s not a sure thing that the state Senate and House will be able to override the veto. Sad.

That same week an Illinois Congressman announced a bill that would specifically target the new devil’s weed, so-called “kush,” with stiffer penalties compared to just plain old regular marijuana. Helpfully, this Congressman explained how hydroponic growing techniques and controlled environments make this weed so dangerously potent. You learn something new every day. These proposed new penalties would put someone convicted of selling this killer weed in prison for up to 25 years. Yes, you heard me right, 25 years for selling good pot.

And let’s not forget some of the drug war’s latest martyrs. There’s Charlie Lynch who was recently sentenced for his convictions related to operating a legitimate medical dispensary in California. Clearly the federal judge was reluctant to impose the mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years. He delayed the sentencing and even wrote to the Attorney General to question whether the newly-announced hands-off policy applied in Mr. Lynch’s case. It did not. But the judge won out, sort of, by only sentencing Mr. Lynch to one year and one day in federal prison. So I guess there’s something positive in this otherwise sad, and unnecessary story.

Unfortunately, Eddie Lepp was not so lucky. He recently did receive the mandatory minimum 10-year sentence. This is a 56-year-old man in ill health who did nothing but grow and distribute medicine. The judge did allow for Mr. Lepp to receive another hearing if the laws ever change. That’s mighty white of him.

I guess my point is that, although we might (just might) have turned a corner, there’s still a long way to go. And if often seems that for every step we take forward, we take two back. Not that that’s anything new. Pretty much the same thing that’s been going on for the past 40 years. Same shit, different day.

There, now I feel better. Too much optimism makes me feel unsettled. Off balance. So don’t worry, I won’t go getting all positive again anytime soon. Back to business as usual.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

That’s What They Say—Part 2

The other part of the pro-drug war argument is the actual, once-and-for-all, definitive way to make it really work: get tough(er). In other words, the solution to our drug problem is stiffer penalties (sounds a lot like the first President Bush). Some qualify that by saying that the severe penalties should be aimed not at users, but at the rest of the people that make up the recreational drug black market—the producers, smugglers, dealers, and such. If you make the penalties severe enough, that will certainly discourage people from producing and selling drugs. Granted, it just might discourage a few, but I think the negative side effects of such an approach would be far worse than its doubtful benefits.

For one thing, higher risk means higher prices. And the one thing we can be certain of is that if addicts have to pay more, crime will go up. Higher risk also means that only the most hard-core, serious criminal types will continue to be involved in the business. The drug black market attracts some pretty bad individuals already. If the stakes are higher, they’re only going to get worse, mainly because the less serious will find other means of making a living.

And of course stiffer penalties don’t address the fact that once something is made illegal, the government loses all control over it. Legal drugs are regulated—their sale and distribution is controlled. You have to be 21 years old to buy liquor and, as a result, it’s not so easy for kids to get it (not impossible of course). Responsible merchants, which most are, won’t sell liquor without proof of their customer’s age. However, illegal drug dealers are generally not quite so responsible. They tend to be equal-opportunity vendors, and will sell to anybody with money. And if the risk is higher, even the ones with a bit of a conscience might relax their standards to make all they can as fast as they can. Even now, for most kids illegal drugs are easier to come by than legal ones. Stiffer penalties are not going to change that, other than possibly making the situation worse.

In conclusion, I don’t think it’s our government’s job to protect people (i.e., competent, sane, adults) from themselves. Nor do I think it’s even possible. Legislation will never prevent stupidity. And I don’t think stiffer penalties will help either. Other than the law enforcement and prison industries, who certainly welcome all the money thrown their way. If you think that’s crazy talk, then just look at the historical data. Anti-recreational-drug legislation has, at best, maintained the status quo. In some cases it’s exacerbated the problem, and even created new problems. What’s crazy is expecting the government to solve all of our social and medical problems.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

That’s What They Say—Part 1

From time to time I read about or hear someone discussing the war on drugs. In fact I read an editorial in a local paper about it just the other day. And I’ve noticed that pro-drug war arguments tend to focus on two aspects: why it’s a just cause and how to make it work.

The war on drugs is a just cause because it’s the duty of the government to protect people from themselves. Interesting concept, and arguably a noble ideal. It also sounds like a pretty liberal idea to me (i.e., the nanny government), although I doubt conservatives view trying to stop people from using drugs in quite that way. However it is not the role of our government. I’m not talking theoretically, but in terms of the duties granted to the federal government by our Constitution. The Constitution clearly enumerates the powers of the federal government, and states that any powers not specifically granted to the federal government are left to the states or to the people. Many of the powers granted to the federal government could be described as intended to protect people from others (e.g., piracy, treason, international trade). But none could even remotely be interpreted as protecting people from themselves. So, while it may sound to some like something our government should be doing, protecting people from themselves is not something that our government has the power or authority to do. And if you think about it, you just might realize that in practice it is virtually impossible. People always have and always will do really stupid things and no legislation will ever stop them. Nor in my opinion should it even try, because doing stupid things is a big part of our unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. Not to mention a very fundamental part of human nature.

Here’s the other thing about trying to use legislation to prevent people from hurting themselves: Not only does it typically not accomplish what it is intended to, but it tends to hurt the people who have no need of such protection. Just because one or two people burn themselves with hot coffee, does that mean coffee shouldn’t be served hot ever again? Just because a small percentage of people who consume alcohol become alcoholics, does that mean we should prevent the vast majority of responsible drinkers from enjoying their frosty beverages? Likewise, because a few people abuse other recreational drugs, should we deprive everyone of the right to enjoy and use those drugs responsibly? Not only deprive them, but turn them into criminals? Well, apparently the answer is yes—punish many in a futile attempt to help a few.

To be continued…